Guy Armstrong holds a unique place in the IMS sangha. For nearly five decades, he’s been an integral part of the community, contributing to its creation, growth, and evolution. His involvement began when he sat a six-month retreat at IMS in 1977 and has continued ever since. Over the years, he has worked as a member of staff, taught many retreats including more than 20 years on the team leading the Three-Month, and served as a member of our Board of Directors and as a Guiding Teacher. Guy, and his wife and fellow IMS teacher Sally, have been donors throughout the years as well, contributing to projects and programs close to their hearts, including the construction of the Teacher Village, and supporting young people in deepening their dharma practice.
Here, Guy speaks with IMS’s Raquel Baetz about how he came to the practice, why it’s important to him and Sally to be IMS donors, and the importance of this institution in the world.
Tell us a bit about your background, including when and how you first came to Vipassana practice and IMS?
Throughout my adult career, I’ve gone back and forth between service work and technical work. I have a Bachelor’s in physics and a Master’s in computer science. But I’ve always enjoyed working with people. After I graduated from college, I worked as a computer programmer for a year, and then I spent a couple of years in the Peace Corps in Malaysia as a high school teacher. I came back from that and went to work again in the tech industry with Hewlett Packard. During that time, I discovered insight meditation, and I got that bug in a big way. And honestly, I then spent about 12 years being what we call a “dharma bum,” orienting my life around practice and working just enough to keep going.
That was when I came to IMS. I sat retreat for six months, and then I came on staff for nearly two years, and shortly after that I finished up my computer science graduate degree. Right after that I went to Thailand and became a monk for a year.
When I got back from Thailand, I settled in England because a dharma community was forming there around Totnes, Devon. My teacher, Christopher Titmuss, invited me, and Sally Clough, who was then just a friend, to start the community. We were the first two people at the Sharpham Community. While starting the community and living there, Sally and I got together as a couple. A year later, we were married.
As we were forming the dharma community, I started teaching at Gaia House which was nearby in Devon. That’s when I started teaching retreats—around 1984/5. Sally and I stayed in England for five years, and then decided to move back to the States. My work visa was running out and I’d always loved California, so we ended up settling in Woodacre because Spirit Rock had just been bought. Sally worked at Spirit Rock, and I went back to work in the tech industry at Microsoft. I spent five years there to save some money, and then got back into my true love, which was dharma practice and service. I started teaching again at Spirit Rock and IMS—this was the mid-90s—and I’ve been involved with dharma teaching ever since.
What was that very first thing that introduced you to insight meditation?
I had been interested in Buddhism in my college years and did a lot of reading, including The Way of Zen by Alan Watts. When I was living in California after the Peace Corps, I met a teacher who was teaching insight meditation and I got really interested in that. After a couple of years of daily life practice, I did my first retreat, which was in New Mexico with Joseph Goldstein, Sharon Salzberg, and Jack Kornfield. That was ’76—the same year IMS was founded. I fell in love with the practice. So, I gave up my job, sublet my apartment, and moved to IMS to sit a retreat for six months. This was after just one 10-day retreat. I was really taken with the practice.
What impact did that first retreat at IMS have on you?
It was life changing. I was fortunate to be there at a time when Joseph and Sharon were around a lot, so I had a good connection with them as teachers. And I was inspired by their beings and their teachings.
I remember listening to Joseph talk on the five hindrances and realizing, “This is the universal human condition.” This is not my particular problem or my particular dukkha. These are the forces of mind that we’re all dealing with. That took a huge amount of individual pressure off my practice, and it allowed me to work with things in a more objective way.
And being in retreat for some months, the concentration continued to deepen. I started to get what the Buddha was pointing to with his emphasis on impermanence, unsatisfactoriness, and not self. I started to understand the significance of some of those transformative insights.
What made you decide to become a teacher?
It was kind of pushed on me to tell you the truth. I came back from Thailand, where I had spent a year as a monk, and settled in Devon, England. Christopher Titmuss gave me the invitation to start a dharma community—with Sally. I moved in and a year later, he said, “I got this invitation from Germany to teach a retreat, but I’m not able to go. Why don’t you go?”
I said, “Me? I’m not ready to teach a retreat.”
He said, “Oh, it would be such a shame if those people didn’t get to have a retreat.”
So, I thought, “Okay, I’ll give it a shot.” So, I went to Germany and led my first retreat.
How did that go?
Nobody knew me as a teacher at that time. The organizers let me know that only four people had signed up. So, they asked me if I still wanted to come or if they should cancel it. And I said, well, if four people want to practice, I’ll go. So, I made the arrangements, bought my ticket, and flew to Germany. By that time, two of the people had canceled, so I led a week’s retreat for two people.
It was a very humble beginning, but it gave me the feel for what I would need to do to lead a retreat, and it all went fine. Things just grew from there.
This past year was your last teaching the Three-Month Retreat after more than 20 years. What are your thoughts around transitioning off of that teaching team and leaving it in the hands of a new generation of teachers?
It really felt like the time for me to do this—and Sally and Carol Wilson felt the same. I feel good about the team that’s there to carry it on. We have a strong group of teachers who are committed to carrying it forward. And there are a lot of newer teachers coming up who will be invited to join the teaching teams going forward. So, I think the Three-Month Retreat is in good shape in terms of the quality of teaching that will continue to be offered there, and the inspiration that it will provide.
In my case, the other thing is that I’ve started to enjoy teaching a specialized set of teachings centered around the themes of emptiness and awareness. This is new territory for a lot of established Vipassana practitioners. I find it rewarding to be able to open up these themes—which have a lot of depth and potential for freedom—to practitioners who haven’t encountered them before. Sally and I are teaching a month-long at the Forest Refuge this year on these themes. It’s become very rewarding for me to offer the Dharma in this way.
You’ve been deeply involved with IMS in many capacities, including as a donor. Can you tell us about some of the projects and programs you’ve given to over the years that have been close to your heart?
When we talk about donations to IMS, it’s always Sally and me both because we share that good fortune to be able to offer to IMS in this way.
There are really two things that have been close to our hearts. The first is supporting young people in deepening their dharma practice. Both Sally and I started our meditation paths in our 20s. She started in India, and I started at IMS. At that time, the daily rate at IMS was $7.50 a day. That’s why it was possible for me as a twenty-something to come to IMS and spend six months in retreat, because it just wasn’t that expensive back then. Sally went to India to start her meditation practice, and it was very inexpensive to live in India and Nepal as a visitor wanting to engage with meditation.
We both think that if we were in our 20s now, there would be much bigger financial hurdles to our being able to carry on long-term meditation practice. So, one of the things that we’ve been doing is offering scholarships to the Three-Month Retreat for young adults. We hope that over time IMS will be able to create an endowment to carry these scholarships into the future. That’s probably our first love in terms of the sangha members who we want to support.
The other thing that we are committed to is enhancing or expanding the physical facility. So, the second thing that we got involved with at IMS was this wonderful opportunity to build new teacher housing. Both of us have been involved in teaching at IMS for a long time, so we’ve spent months at IMS in different forms of teacher housing. We realized that, up to that point, teachers were housed across all these different locations, and we sometimes wouldn’t see each other very often. We thought it would be wonderful if we could collect the whole teaching team together—housed close together with a central meeting room where everyone could hang out and discuss what needs to be done for the retreat.
About five years ago, a parcel of land came up for sale one property over from IMS and it had a stunning outlook. So, we contributed to the Teacher Village, and we also served on the design committee for that project.
I stayed at the Teacher Village for the first time this past fall when I taught the Three-Month Retreat. I loved being there, and all the things that we had imagined have in fact worked out. We had a great space for teacher meetings. Teachers would cross paths often during the day, and I think all that contact brought us closer. The senior teachers were in more contact with the newer teachers and so a lot of informal mentoring could take place because of our close physical proximity.
For me, one of the beautiful things about a community is crossing paths in unexpected ways over the course of your daily activities. The Teacher Village provides this close connection for the teaching team. When the teaching team is getting on well and is in harmony, I think the yogis really get a lot of benefit. They pick that up. This is what real dharma friendship can be like, and I think that warmth really carried out to the yogis.
Are there any other programs or projects you would like to mention?
Because I am getting older and reducing some of my teaching work, one of the things I think about is the generation that will carry the Dharma forward. There are a few ways that I hope to be able to mentor newer teachers and trainees that will help them become established teachers so that they can carry the work forward. The Dharma that IMS offers is one of the things the world really needs. I think IMS as an institution has a good understanding of how to carry it out, and we continue to need a fresh supply of new teachers to do that work. I hope to have a hand in shaping some of that going forward.
Why is it so important to you to continue to contribute to IMS?
I have tremendous faith in our practice—of what we offer at IMS—to transform the world for the better. When I step back and look at all the organizations that I’ve come in contact with, I think IMS brings as much light into the world as any organization I can think of—an undiluted light of wisdom, compassion, love, and generosity. When I think about a legacy in terms of financial giving, it is where I feel Sally’s and my donations can have the greatest impact.
We trust the leadership and the vision in the organization, and we think that it has the greatest potential to carry the clarity of the Buddha’s teachings into the future when we won’t be here. IMS represents something so valuable and unique in the Western dharma world that we want to help put it on a good footing going forward.